Developer EggNut highlights how they created Backbone's dystopian noir 2.5D pixel art style
In Backbone, players will interrogate witnesses and solve cases. There are stealth elements and the game takes inspiration from classic CRPGs with branching dialogue options. Leveraging the fact that you play a raccoon in the game, Backbone introduces a gameplay mechanic that allows you to sniff out clues.
EggNut launched a Kickstarter for the game in 2018 and met its goal by over 150 percent from 2,362 backers. We caught up with several developers from the studio to discuss what sparked the creation of their passion project and glean how they used UE4 and the Unreal Engine Marketplace to bring their highly stylized 2.5D world to life. Considering the Latin scientific name for the eastern racoon is Procyon lotor or P.l. Lotor. Is that what sparked the idea for Backbone’s lead character, Private Investigator Lotor?
Co-Founder, Developer, and Composer Nikita Danshin: Back in 2017, we were working on a completely different 3D stealth game in a sci-fi setting. One day, when we were brainstorming the concept on a call, a bunch of raccoons stormed my compost bin here in Vancouver so I had to scare them off with a trumpet.
We were unable to stop chuckling about how fun it would be to play as a raccoon strategically stealing people’s garbage, and after a few iterations, Backbone’s world of anthropomorphic animals were born. Our thief raccoon became a raccoon detective. The name for the main character Howard Lotor was simply derived from the Latin name for the common raccoon - Procyon Lotor. We thought it sounded cool.
You’ll see that “it seemed cool” is a recurring theme in our process.
What was a key moment in Backbone’s development or conceptualization that made the team think the game would be compelling?
Senior Artist Kristina Dashevskaya: The defining moment was the launch of our Kickstarter campaign back in April 2018. The trailer that we created for the campaign was our proof-of-concept, both for our future backers and our team.
It made us realize that there’s so much more to Backbone as a concept than we first expected, and that we can actually achieve things as a team. It was very appealing for our target audience (furries, pixel art enthusiasts, retro adventurers, and narrative fans), and secured our campaign’s success.
We didn’t have any gameplay when we started crafting the trailer. We had no idea how the whole 2.5D look was going to play into the final project, and there was just one game screen worth of visual concept.
We started with defining what sort of story we wanted to tell in the trailer. We made a storyboard, like you would for a movie, put in some sketches, and discussed the general tone and ambience of each scene. Then we created pixel assets, which was a whole learning process of prototyping resolution, building new technologies to make our frame-by-frame animation work in UE4, and, finally, figuring out how to place all of it in the engine and to set up cameras.
So it wasn’t a game demo in a traditional sense, but definitely a much needed concept prototype. This allowed us to get the initial stack of technologies and some crucial experience.
Co-founder Aleksandra Korabelnikova: When everyone on the team said, “Yes, I want to be immersed in the world that we just created. Let’s build further.” Also, when we saw the initial reactions on Twitter and our successful Kickstarter campaign. That’s when we knew that Backbone had a chance to become an artistically worthwhile and commercially successful project.
It’s a really rare chance we have, and we are incredibly lucky. Everyone on the team works really hard, but it was especially thanks to our artists that we were able to get this initial big push of approval that allowed us to continue working on the game. Visuals are definitely the biggest initial hook for Backbone. Two years down the line, it’s still a concept we’re excited to work on, which is invaluable in a creative job, really.
What came first: Anthropomorphic animal characters or the idea to use smell as a key mechanic? And how did the team use UE4 to bring that mechanic to life?
Danshin: First came the mechanic of smell. We wanted to make a stealth game, and were thinking about creating new levels of interaction with the player. Once we moved to Backbone, it worked within the lore so perfectly that we decided to keep it.
The mechanic itself is centered around your so-called Smell-o-vision, a mode that can be turned on and off to reveal smell traces left by different characters, objects, or events.
We use a combination of collision-enabled particles and hitboxes to set up the main component of the mechanic. The amount of things that particle systems can do is huge. When you pair it with other elements of the engine, there is plenty of room for game design solutions, and the visuals are finalized with widgets and post-processing.
Smell-o-vision is still in the prototyping and polishing stage. It’s a complex mechanic that has to be playtested and tweaked a million times, so it wasn’t included in the [free] Prologue.
To what degree is Vancouver a character in itself throughout Backbone?
Dashevskaya: Vancouver is the main character of Backbone, for sure. We love video game cities, they can be such an amazing tool for storytelling and have the potential to create an unforgettable sense of place. We’re trying to show how Vancouver is not only a location that the characters of Backbone exist in, but a living and breathing organism that shifts and changes throughout the story under the influence of its citizens. It’s also an emotional element, showcasing Howard’s internal struggles through the environment he’s in. We’re trying to marry the inconsistency and fluidity of our setting with iconic elements of Vancouver, such as mountains, bad weather, buildings, and street lamps.
Korabelnikova: While we’d love for Vancouverites to recognize their beautiful city, it’s not our goal to copy it completely. It’s a brand new world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals with retro-futuristic technological advancements under the rule of an autocratic government. It’s a make-believe place enriched by our passion for cinema and, in part, inspired by our experience living in Russian Siberia.
Environment Artist Tamara Klepinina: Our ultimate goal with any setting would be to make it fresh and exciting, but also realistic so there is a suspension of disbelief when it comes to the characters you encounter. There are consistent rules to this world, and it has to be shown through everything you see in the game. I also like drawing tiny things that tell tiny stories, so curious players can always get to the meat of Backbone’s lore.
Learn more about EggNut’s approach to Working with 2D Pixel Art in a 3D World via this presentation from Unreal Indie Dev Days 2019.
Were there ways Unreal Engine assisted with the time-consuming frame-by-frame animation of characters and environments?
Danshin: The Unreal Marketplace has been very helpful. There’s a bunch of various plugins developed by the community. We use PaperZD for better animation event management and flipbook animation state machines. There are also a few tools for skeletal animation, but after some prototyping and research, we decided to stick to frame-by-frame, as it produces a higher fidelity of movement and character in the style that we like.
What inspired the decision to blend a dystopian setting with film noir, animals, and retro-futuristic tech?
Dashevskaya: These are just our favorite flavors, all combined into a delicious pastry. Film noir is something very personal for many of us, and while the films of that era can be plenty problematic, it still oozes style and atmosphere. It’s an aesthetic choice, first and foremost, but the main story of Backbone is also full of contrast, so it’s a great fit overall.
Korabelnikova: There are a lot of curious tropes in film noir we’re trying to subvert in Backbone. I personally believe that every genre evolves in tune with the society that’s producing and consuming said genre. We’re making a modern game for a modern audience. Hopefully, we’re successful enough that some of our observations about gender roles, class divide, corruption, and contrast in noir somehow spark new conversations around the genre.
Dashevskaya: Concerning the anthropomorphic animals, it’s just such a pleasure to work on animal character design. There’s so many ways to tell a cohesive story through costume, posture, and coloring. Species have a heavy connotation in Backbone’s lore, so every rat and lion comes with a set of inherent stereotypes that characters in the game believe. We want players to study these in-world stereotypes, apply them to judge characters, and, of course, question and deconstruct them.
Retrofuturism is there partly because some of us are insanely in love with Fallout, as it was the first time we ever felt truly immersed in a game world. These aesthetics carry an aura of childhood wonder, nostalgia, and feeling like anything is possible. They make the game world feel alive.
What inspired the decision to add 3D effects to the pixel art style?
Danshin: A few random experiments during early 2017 showed that it's actually possible to add meshes to the 2D level. Then we started putting point lights, Materials, and particles to the mix and it just snowballed into Backbone's current visuals. We chose pixel art as I personally believed it would be fast and cheap to make those assets (I was wrong) and it would be easy and cool to add random 3D stuff to it because you can do it in UE4, so why not? It’s great to see that the combination of modern effects and 2D graphics is slowly getting traction in the gamedev community. For instance, Siege and the Sandfox, Unbound, and Spleen are some of the projects that we are really passionate about.
What classic heroes or anti-heroes inspire the design/characteristics of P.I. Lotor?
Korabelnikova: Howard is not the chosen one. He’s a regular dude, thrown into a mix of things, relatable almost to the point of blandness. He pukes and panics when something terrible happens. He wouldn’t save a child from a burning building. He’s not a hero.
Howard is a good individual with the potential to do harm and to be complicit in harm, like all of us. He’s both an agent for the players to familiarize themselves with the world of Backbone, and a clean slate prepared for massive change and a whirlwind character arc.
Howard is inspired by characters that challenge traditional leading male hero representation in media, instead suggesting a humanized, empathetic, and softer approach to masculinity. Jim Cummings in “Thunder Road,” Joaquin Phoenix in “Her” and “You Were Never Really There,” and John Turturro in “The Night Of” are the golden standards for this type of character.
Where are all the places people can go to learn about Backbone?
We are present on many platforms!